Daily Archives: September 17, 2012

Digging up the Past

All good historians, especially those who focus on the pre-modern era, know that much of history is behind a closed door which we cannot crack.  But occasionally someone comes along, usually a nice archivist or archeologist, who opens it up for us.  This week two stories which demonstrate this occurrence very well caught my attention–actually one has been holding it for a while.  So it is time to report.

King Richards Body:

The Battle of Bosworth (1485) marked the end of the life and reign of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet dynasty as well as the last English king to be killed in battle. At his death, Richard’s reputation was already tarnished, but it would become even more so due to the energetic efforts of a sophisticated Tudor propaganda campaign, which employed the able pens of Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare, among others.  Richard’s vanquisher and successor, Henry VII, did not want to create a shrine for Richard but he also made plans to give him an appropriate, though quiet, royal funeral. Richard’s body was taken to Leicester and put on public display after Bosworth, and then buried rather secretly in the church of Grey Friars Friary, which was destroyed a half-century later during the forcible dissolution of England’s monasteries by Henry VIII.  The burial site of the last Plantagenet was forgotten over the ensuing centuries, until just last week when a team of University of Leicester archeologists dug up the corpse of fifteenth-century man who suffered battle blows similar to Richard’s experience, and who possessed a slightly-curved spine (there were gasps when this was announced) but was clearly not the “crookback” or hunchback of Tudor narratives. If the DNA testing proves conclusive, the royal body was enshrined beneath a city centre parking lot.

King Richard III and Queen Anne during their brief reign; the great 18th century actor David Garrick in the big scene from Shakespeare’s Richard III, c. 1800 (courtesy British Museum) the excavation site in Leicester, and the press conference announcing the discovery of the skeleton, just last week (courtesy University of Leicester).

The Plague Ship:

The last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in the west occurred in Marseilles, France in 1720, when the epidemic was brought to Europe by a merchant ship named the Grand SaintAntoine on its return journey from the infected and infectious Middle East. Its passengers were allowed to disembark before authorities ordered its burning, and the process took several days, during which the disease spread to the city and its environs, eventually killing over 120,000 people. Just last week, and just as the possible skeleton of a king was being raised to the light, the ship was raised from its watery grave.

1720 print of the Plague of Marseilles by Jacques Rigaud (courtesy British Museum); a plague doctor in Marseilles (1721 engraving by Johann Melchior Füssli,Wellcome Images); and the raised anchor of the Grand Saint-Antoine last week (BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images).

So nice to see crowds observing the raised anchor in this last picture: there were crowds looking at the trenches in Leicester last week as well.  That’s the thing about archeology:  objects (and bones!) generally capture the public’s historical interest far more often than dry dusty texts.  For me, there is just nothing better than seeing people in the present captivated by people in the past.

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